Long strands of grass tickled Ava’s knees as she squatted below the window ledge of the old cottage. Paint was peeling off the ledge and chunks of it had fallen on the ground below. Ava didn’t dare touch it for fear of it crumbling right there in her hand. Instead she bent over and leaned her hands on her knees. She waited until she heard movement from inside before she slowly stood and peeked through the dusty panes. A woman with long, brown hair pulled back with a ribbon was sitting at the table with a bowl in one hand and a stick with a rounded end in the other. She was grinding something in the bowl that looked like herbs, but Ava couldn’t tell for sure.
“Don’t you know it ain’t polite to spy on people, Ava Marie,” came a loud whisper that startled her. She ducked down again.
“Shhhhh,” Ava hissed. “Margaret Ann, you’re gonna get me caught. Don’t you got something else to do than to bother me all the time?” Ava scowled at her older sister.
“Momma told me to look after you so that’s what I’m doing. What are you spyin’ on Widow Thompson for anyway?”
Ava grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her closer. “She’s brewin’ something,” she said then rose up to peek in the window again. Her sister followed her lead and did the same. The widow wasn’t in the kitchen any longer but all her tools were laid out neatly on the table.
“See? Those are herbs and she was grindin’ them up in that bowl,” Ava explained as the girls squatted back down. “Mrs. Morgan said Widow Thompson’s a bad witch and that she killed her husband ‘cause he was havin’ relations with other women.”
“I don’t believe a thing Mrs. Morgan says. Momma don’t either. She said Mrs. Morgan’s a gossip and wouldn’t know the truth if it hit her square in the head.” Margaret leaned her knees down in the itchy grass and looked at her sister. She reached over and tucked a strawberry blond strand of hair behind Ava’s ear. “Besides, there’s no such thing as witches. Widow Thompson just moved here last week.”
“She is too a witch, Margaret. She’s got all those herbs and she’s always mixing up potions. And remember when Mr. Mitchell got sick a few days ago and they thought he was gonna die? Widow Thompson brought him some soup and he suddenly got better.”
Ava watched as Margaret’s eyes squinted with doubt. “Momma wouldn’t want you talkin’ like that Ava. Let’s just go home.”
“No. Momma ain’t here no more so she can’t hear me talkin’. I’m stayin’ right here. I don’t know if Widow Thompson’s a good witch or if she’s bad. So I figured I’d spy on her and find out.”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t be spyin’ on her. If she is a witch, I don’t wanna get caught, Ava. Preacher Mac says their evil.”
“Preacher Mac knows a lot but he don’t know everything. If she made Mr. Mitchell better, then she’s good not evil, Margaret Ann.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know if she was good or bad,” Margaret countered.
Ava sighed and rolled her eyes at her sister. “That’s what I’m here tryin’ to prove. But if you don’t shut up we are gonna get caught and Pappa’s gonna skin our hides.”
“Well, if you won’t leave, then go look again and see what she’s doin’,” Margaret Ann said.
“Thought it was rude to spy,” Ava remarked but did as her sister said. She watched as the widow stacked logs in the fireplace. Ava motioned to Margaret Ann that it was safe for her to look too. They watched the widow dunk pieces of material in her bowl on the table and then stuff it in the cracks between the logs. She stood and looked up with her eyes closed. They saw the widow’s lips moving but couldn’t hear what she was saying. Then the widow motioned with her hands and flames burst to life in the fireplace. The girls let out a gasp and ducked down so they wouldn’t be seen.
“Did you see that?” Ava asked. “She started a fire. She really is a witch.”
“Her husband died in a fire back in their old town, Ava. Maybe Mrs. Morgan’s right and she killed him after all.”
Ava pouted at her sister. “I don’t believe it. And I’m gonna prove it.” She stood up and marched towards the front door of the widow’s old cottage.
“Where are you going? Ava Marie, you come back here!”
Ava ignored her sister’s plea and knocked on the door. She looked over at Margaret Ann peeking around the corner of the cottage and stuck her tongue out at her.
The door creaked open and Widow Thompson looked down at her. “May I help you?”
Ava swallowed hard and took a deep breath. If she was wrong and Widow Thompson turned out to be a bad witch, at least Margaret Ann could run and get Pappa before the widow killed her. “I want to know if you’re a good witch or a bad witch.”
After a few moments of silence, Ava started to fidget but she refused to look away from the widow. If a spell was gonna be cast on her at least she’d see it coming.
“That depends, child, on your definition of good and bad.”
Ava scrunched up her brow and blinked up at the woman. That wasn’t the response she had expected from the widow. She studied the woman for a moment and noticed the widow wasn’t much older than her Momma and they kind of looked alike, with their brown hair and eyes. But Ava was still suspicious. “You don’t know the difference?”
“I know what I believe to be good and what I believe to be bad, but I don’t know what you believe.”
“What’s that got to do with you being a good witch or a bad witch?”
“Well, why don’t you and your sister come in and I’ll fix you some tea while we discuss it.”
Ava looked down at her shoes and then over to the corner where Margaret Ann was standing. She waved her sister over to them. Margaret shook her head and Ava sighed. She put her hands on her hips and huffed. “She knows you’re over there, Margaret Ann. You might as well come here.”
The girls entered the cottage and followed the widow to the kitchen. She offered them a seat at the same table they had seen her working at earlier.
“Are these magical herbs?” Ava asked.
Margaret elbowed her. “Mind your manners.”
Ava rolled her eyes again and sat down.
“Its okay, child. You can ask anything you want. I’ll tell you what I know,” the widow said.
Ava looked at Margaret for a split second then started blurting out questions. “Are those magic herbs? Do you make potions? How many spells have you cast? How did you start that fire?”
“Slow down. One question at a time, dear. No, the herbs aren’t magical. If used in the proper way or mixed correctly with other herbs in the right amount, they can be used as medicines.” The widow poured three cups of tea and brought them to the table. She sat down next to Ava.
“Do you make potions?” Ava asked and looked at the cup in front of her. She didn’t know whether it was safe to drink. She looked to her sister for guidance. Margaret shook her head slightly. Ava pursed her lips and braved a sip.
“No. I don’t make potions. I make teas, spices, lotions, and medicinal rubs. But no potions,” the widow answered and sipped her own cup of tea.
Ava didn’t hesitate to ask another one. “So you aren’t a witch?”
The widow smiled, “Some people think that only witches can do magic. But that’s not true. Magic is everywhere and anyone be a part of it.”
“Does that make you good or bad?”
“Like I said earlier, that depends on your definition of good and bad.”
“I don’t know what you mean. The definition is the same for everybody.”
“Not always dear. Some people don’t always see things the same way. Some people believe in magic and some don’t. Some people think magic is bad and others think it’s beautiful. It’s what you use it for that matters.”
“What do you use it for?” Ava asked.
“I think magic is beautiful. And I use it to help people when I can and when they will let me.”
“Well, I guess then it would be good.” Ava gave Margaret her best “I told you so” look and finished her tea. She looked at the old woman beside her, “I knew you were good.”
The widow smiled at Ava and then took on a somber face. “Not everyone feels that way. And not everyone takes the time to ask questions or find out the truth of things. Doing so is the wiser choice. But some people make quick judgements and try to force it on others. I’m glad you girls asked me, instead of judging me.” The widow took their cups to the sink and walked the girls to the door.
“Thank you for the tea,” Margaret said. “Ava, let’s go before Pappa starts worrying.”
Ava turned to the old woman. “Will you teach me how to use magic?”
The widow looked at Margaret Ann then down to Ava. “I will teach you both if you wish. But only if you promise to use what I teach you to help others before yourself.”
“I promise! I’ll be here every day after school,” Ava smiled and skipped away.
Margaret Ann looked after her sister then turned towards the widow. “I saw the book of matches on the table. That’s how you started the fire. I’m not so sure you should be fillin’ my sister’s head with nonsense, Widow Thompson. Since Momma passed away, Ava has missed her terrible. Momma wouldn’t have liked Ava thinking she was some kind of witch when there’s no such thing.”
The widow smiled and gave a small chuckle. “Margaret Ann, you don’t have to be a witch to do magic. Just knowing it exists is enough. It can be found in the smallest of things, like nature or a child’s love. Your Momma was the one who taught me that.” She winked a Margaret Ann.
“You knew my Momma? She taught you?”
“Yes, child. I used to look after your Momma, the way you look after Ava. Your Momma taught me many things before I married and moved away.”
Margaret Ann’s brow furrowed as she thought about what the widow just said. “So, your my Momma’s sister then. She talked about you a lot when she was alive but she never said anything about you knowin’ magic. Did you come back to help Pappa look after us?”
“I promised your Momma that if anything ever happened, I’d be around to help if you needed me.”
Margaret Ann looked down at the ground and then in the direction her sister had skipped off. “Will you tell us stories about Momma, when she was young? Ava never got to know her well and Pappa won’t talk about her.”
The widow bent down to look Margaret Ann in the face. “I’ll tell you everything I remember. You look just like her, you know. And Ava, well, she may look like your Papa but she certainly acts like your Momma did. Your Momma saw the magic in the world around her. Her heart was bigger than the sun itself. And she shared it with you and Ava.”
Margaret Ann watched as the widow picked a budding rose from the bushes beside her front door. She held it in both hands, closed her eyes and chanted a few words under her breath. Margaret Ann stared in awe as the flower’s red petals started to open to a full bloom. She took it from the widow’s out-stretched hand.
“Did my Momma teach you that too?”
“She sure did.”
“She always had roses in full bloom on the table. I guess that was her magic then, huh?” Margaret Ann looked up at her aunt in the doorway. “I’ve got to get back before Pappa comes lookin’ for me. Ava and I will be here after school, but only if you teach me how to make the roses keep blooming like Momma did. I think Pappa would like to have the roses back on the table again.”
“All you have to do is believe in magic, Margaret Ann, and anything is possible.”